Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's call centres lost in translation

Cambodia's call centres lost in translation

Employees work at a China-based company in the call centre of their headquarters in Shanghai. Andrew Ross/AFP
Employees work at a China-based company in the call centre of their headquarters in Shanghai. Andrew Ross/AFP

Cambodia's call centres lost in translation

Cambodia's nascent call-centre industry faces many challenges when competing with established Asian outsourcing giants like India and the Philippines, and despite recent growth, experts are divided on whether the Kingdom’s youthful population and developing infrastructure will be enough to compensate for its relatively low education levels.

Tiabduan Poolun, country manager for One to One Cambodia, a subsidiary of one of Thailand’s largest call-centre firms, said while most local companies have little knowledge of the importance of outsourced customer services, demand was growing steadily.

Moreover, the foreign language skills of Cambodian youth were proving an asset in securing regional clientele, putting the Kingdom on course to be a regional call-centre hub.

“People in Cambodia have very good Asian language skills, speaking a good level of Lao, Thai and Vietnamese,” she said. “They have good multilingual skills and the country’s political situation is quite stable, which are big advantages for Cambodia to develop call centres focused on Asia.”

However, not everyone would agree. Analysts at AT Kearney, an international management consulting firm that publishes a cornerstone annual report on global offshoring activities, including call centres, say that while Cambodia benefits from a youthful population, its inadequate education system presents a major hurdle.

“Young people will make up the bulk of call-centre ventures around the world, except maybe in Europe,” explained Johan Gott, a principal at AT Kearney. “It’s a type of job more suited to a young population, but it also depends greatly on a country’s level of education.”

He said it will be hard for Cambodia to compete with English-speaking countries like India or the Philippines unless more is done to improve basic language skill and knowledge.

“In general, low language skill is a major disadvantage, and my biggest concern with Cambodia would be its lack of English ability,” he said. “If I were to list the factors needed for a successful call centre and outsourcing industry, the first three things would be education, education and education.”

Tomas Pokorny, CEO of WorldBridge Outsourcing, which operates one of the largest call centres in Cambodia, believes young Cambodians can be trained to achieve very high standards of work, but noted that many struggle when it comes to speaking foreign languages, especially English.

“Cambodians are equally trainable as any other country,” he said. “The issue is the length of training, particularly when taking languages into account.”

He said statistics show that in the Philippines it takes two months to train a worker for language proficiency.

“In Cambodia it takes six months, so suddenly that makes projects become more and more unprofitable,” he said.

Pokorny said Cambodia was not yet ready to scale up its voice-based call-centre services, though it was well suited to taking on more business processing outsourcing (BPO), which relies on interpretation of data and text rather than responding to voice calls.

“I foresee that Cambodia will not become as strong in voice-based outsourcing as its competitors in the near future,” he said. “But when it comes to data processing, data analysis and non-voice call centres like chat services or IT support, we can become comparable to or even better than those other countries.”

Moreover, determining Cambodia’s comparative advantages for call-centre outsourcing is difficult, as success in this industry depends on a large number of factors, Gott explained. Price differentials exist, but they are not dramatic enough to generate major market shifts.

“When it comes to manufacturing, it is much easier to move to other markets as the skills required in manufacturing can be easily transferred,” he said. “For a service industry like call centres, which requires a more skilled workforce, it is not as easy to change from country to country.”

At the same time, the rapid spread of new technologies could play a potentially disruptive role in the industry, Gott said, with automation making it much harder for Cambodia’s call-centre industry to establish itself.

“Are there even going to be these new outsourcing markets in the future after automation?” he said. “Now you can automate voice recognition or data entry and you are looking at 35 per cent labour saving costs on the low scale.”

“I’m worried the entry point will increase a lot and prevent the growth of the industry in countries that have not started to develop it yet,” he added.

MOST VIEWED

  • Second Hungary business forum set for H2

    Cambodia has asked Hungary to provide GSP- (Generalised System of Preferences) Plus facilities for when the Kingdom sheds its least-developed country (LDC) label, as the two countries prepare to hold a second business forum in the second half (H2) of this year to expand trade

  • Thai boxers to join SEA Games’ Kun Khmer event

    The Cambodian SEA Games Organising Committee (CAMSOC) – together with the Kun Khmer International Federation (KKIF) and Khmer Boxing Federation – have achieved a “great success” by including Kun Khmer in the upcoming biennial multi-sports event on its home soil for the first time, said a senior

  • Bullets to bracelets: Siem Reap man makes waste from war wearable

    Jewellery is often made from valuable gemstones like emeralds or diamonds and precious metals like gold or silver, or valueless things like animal horns. But a man in Siem Reap has approached the manufacture of delicate pieces from a different angle. His unique form of

  • 61% of 2022 imports came from just 3 markets

    The three largest exporters to Cambodia – mainland China, Vietnam and Thailand – accounted for 60.94 per cent of the Kingdom’s total merchandise imports last year, at $18.245 billion, which was up 11.99 per cent over 2021, according to the General Department of Customs and Excise. Cambodia’s total imports

  • CPP sets out five primary strategic goals for 2023-28

    The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on January 29 concluded its two-day extraordinary congress, setting the party’s priority goals for 2023-2028. The ruling party’s congress was attended by more than 3,000 members from across the Kingdom, including the members of the permanent and central committees,

  • Nearly 50 states join Kun Khmer Federation, all set for training

    In a little over a week, the Kun Khmer International Federation (KKIF) has accepted membership requests from 20 new nations, in addition to the exiting 29. The sudden influx of international recognition stems from the Kingdom’s successful introduction of Kun Khmer to the 32nd Souheast Asian (